In 1961, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller was published and became one of the greatest antiwar books to have ever been written. Heller goes into great length about the meaning of heroism and the meaning of bureaucracy through the lens of wartime violence and satirical dark comedy. Set in World War II Italy, the main character is a soldier named Yossarian who is outraged that his life is being threatened through no fault of his own. Yossarian makes various desperate attempts to escape the battlefield, including faking illnesses and simply refusing to fly missions. When faced with the eventual decision of either having to face a court marshal or being dishonorably discharged after stating that he supports the policies of his superiors, Yossarian decides to desert the army and flee to neutral Sweden. It is this final act which sums up the entire predicament of Yossarian and the point of the novel, that a soldier is merely caught between equally abhorrent warring bureaucracies and that his only means of escape is to support a society which promotes neutrality. The story and meaning which Heller is trying to convey through the creation and examination of Yossarian’s life is certainly directly linked to what Heller evokes from reader response. In exploring the meaning of the novel from the perspective of reader response criticism, various readers contribute their own positions about the story in order to formulate a greater understanding of the work (Freund, 1987). It is clear that Heller has created a masterpiece in regard to the conscious ways in which he aims to demonstrate that bureaucracies are completely wrong in their efforts to solve problems through war. By taking note of the opinions of various readers through reader response criticism, one can gain insight into the complexities of Heller’s antiwar message.
The author Joseph Heller was born in 1923 in Brooklyn, New York, and he lived until the age of 76 when he died 1999. Heller was an air force bombardier in World War II and was a successful writer and teacher (Shatzky & Taub, 1997). Among his highly popular books are Something Happened, Good as Gold, Picture This, God Knows, and Closing Time, however, it is his first novel Catch 22 which has been his most popular and important work of literature. During the period of his life when he was working at a New York City marketing and producing company, Heller found time to write his most famous novel. With a mixture of cynicism, hilarity, profound paradoxes, and disturbing stories, Heller created a masterpiece of antiwar literature which takes an amazing strike at the confounding nature of war and the evil nature of battling bureaucracies and elitists.
The plot of the novel centers primarily on the activities of Yossarian and the ways in which his life is being determined by forces outside of his own personal control. He and his fellow soldiers are stationed on the island of Pianosa, near the Italian coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The story progresses to highlight how Yossarian and his peers are simply being used as pawns in the hands of their narcissistic superiors. Time after time, the squadron is forced to take on the most dangerous and brutal missions, and the number of required missions continues to increase, so that the soldiers are never given an opportunity to return home. Yossarian takes the war very personally, and he is steadfast in believing that millions of people are out to kill him. This perspective is highlighted in the warring government militaries, yet also in the very closely and directly linked business societies of the battling nations. The dramatic battles between soldiers are also battles of money, in which the elite are using the soldiers as pawns. Merrill contends that the almost formless shape of the novel, strewn with repetitions and flashbacks, is the way in which Heller sought to expose the battles for what they were, as selfish, disorganized, and absurd rages against the human spirit (1986). The degradation of the human soul through violence, rape, and lies is shown to be bizarre situations and images compounded one on top of the other, until Yossarin has no other means to save himself, to gain control of his own life and identity, except by taking refuge in neutral Switzerland. This neutrality gives form to Yossarian and underscores the formlessness of the novel preceding his decision to remove himself permanently from the war and the forces of manipulation.
In regard to the violence which is so poignantly underscored in Heller’s novel, the author attempts to use humor as a way of calling attention to the absurdity and contradiction of war. Humor is often a way of letting off steam in regard to the seriously broken condition of the human spirit. Although humor has a way of allowing for the reader to disengage from the severity of the matter at hand, it also calls attention to the dark nature of the subject matter. Downing describes the dark humor of Catch-22 as “arising from the evocation of conflictive frames in structures of contradiction” (2000). Whenever there is contradiction, there is strife, battles of ideologies, and a breaking apart of agreement and unity in finding solutions for the common good. In a very real way, there is no common good present in the story of Yossarin during wartime, and many conversations are marred by the fact that people in war are often caught between doing what’s wrong in order to do what’s right, as described in this passage:
“Do you really want some more codeine?” Dr. Stubbs asked.
“It’s for my friend Yossarian. He’s sure he’s going to be killed.”
“That crazy bastard.”
“He’s not so crazy. He swears he’s not going to fly to Bologna.”
“That’s just what I mean,” Dr. Stubbs answered. “That crazy bastard may be the only sane one left.”
(Heller, 1961, p. 144).
Heller’s book can also be viewed through the lens of survival, a story about a man who, although faced with many extreme challenges, is able to successfully spare himself from death. The snares of death are all around Yossarian, and he has to command constant vigilance in figuring out ways in which to preserve his own life. Young calls attention to the importance of survival in his description of the main point of the novel as being “a black comedy novel about death, about what people do when faced with the daily likelihood of annihilation” (1997). If one focuses on the idea that Yossarian’s most basic need in life is his own survival, then it is completely rational that he would do whatever necessary to preserve his own life. In this passage, Yossarian draws very close to his own existence and becomes almost paranoid in his desperation to stay alive:
“One of the things [Yossarian] wanted to start screaming about was the surgeon’s knife that was almost certain to be waiting for him and everyone else who lived long enough to die. He wondered often how he would ever recognize the first chill, flush, twinge, ache, belch, sneeze, stain, lethargy, vocal slip, loss of balance or lapse of memory that would signal the inevitable beginning of the inevitable end.”
(Heller, 1961, p. 173)
It is not possible to understand a story completely from the mind’s eye of the author, as it is highly compelling to consider the many readers who come to personal opinions and viewpoints about the meaning of the objective story (Tompkins, 1980). Whether Heller’s primary intention in his antiwar novel was to create a meticulously formless plot, explore the intricacies of dark humor, or recount the many ways in which the human soul will struggle to survive, he brings to the table a book filled with seemingly endless possibilities for the reader to find and deem significantly important. The struggle of Yossarian is viewed in various ways from the perceptions of various readers, and it is through this large body of reflective knowledge that the novel can be seen the most authentic light, as opinions and awareness changes and develops over time with the sensitivities of the readers. Through paying attention important story elements such as plot development, humor, and survival, interesting connections can be made about the meaning of Heller and his character Yossarian. Collectively speaking, readers have asserted that Heller has produced an antiwar masterpiece which displays the ways in war destroys any sense of logical organization, evokes the most cynical and absurd reactions of humanity in the face of depravity, and underlines the ways in which even the most subjugated and oppressed human beings will do everything in their own capacity to regain their sense of self and escape being forcibly faced with death. It is this collective perception, drawn from the hearts of the readers who responded to this masterful work of art, which aims to paint a picture of the imprint which Heller has left on the face of the world.
Downing, Laura. How to Do Things With Contradiction: Exploring Humor in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Atlantis, 2000.
Freund, Elizabeth. The return of the reader: reader-response criticism. Routledge, 1987.
Heller, Joseph. Catch 22. 1961.
Merrill, R. The Structure and Meaning of ‘Catch 22’. Studies in American Fiction, 1986.
Shatzky, J. & Taub, M. Contemporary Jewish-American novelists: a bio-critical sourcebook. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997
Tompkins, Jane. Reader-response criticism: from formalism to post-structuralism. JHU Press, 1980.
Young, Robert. Deadly Unconscious Logics in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Psychoanalytic Review, 1997.